Tag Archives: photography

Awoiska van der Molen: Sequester

In short, Sequester is one of the best Photobooks I’ve seen in a long time. Here’s why…

Sequester the book

Awoiska van der Molen’s book Squester

…I use a 5-point scale when I’m deciding whether I like a cup of coffee (Yes, this is a photo blog not a coffee blog, but bear with me). Here’s how it goes:

  • Yuk, tip it down the sink
  • Nah, that was too much of an endurance test
  • Well, someone might like it but it’s not for me
  • Hmm, nice but rather 1-dimensional; something’s missing or dischordant
  • Yummy, I could drink that again!

Then I realised I use pretty much the same criteria when I’m reading a photobook or visiting an exhibition. I know others who are more analytical in their approach, and a lot of people who are less so. As a practitioner I know that there is a danger of over-analysing my own work, at least while I am creating it, but I think that at least some enquiring thought about my own and others’ work helps me learn and improve, so I shall try my coffee criteria on photography for a while and see whether it works out.

There aren’t many coffees photobooks that make it to the Yummy point of my scale but Sequester is one of them. The title comes from Awoiska van der Molen‘s desire to isolate herself on the Canary Islands with a camera and film for periods of introspection where she seems to be using landscape and the photographic process as a metaphor for her thoughts and a process for artistic development. She acts instinctively while taking the images and enjoys the delayed gratification of film processing but this also allows her mind to work on the memory, so post-visualisation is an important part of her work. All the images in this book are consistently melanistic (to use an appropriately organic term) but in this instance I don’t find the dark tones depressing but rather they inspire me to look more closely, to enquire more deeply into the hidden detail of the shadows and to appreciate the rare quality of the few highlights. Van der Molen describes her images as not so much representing a moment in time but more part of a continuum; evoking a mood is what she aims for.

Awoiska van der Molen speaking at The Photographers' Gallery, London

Awoiska van der Molen speaking at The Photographers’ Gallery, London, recently

She photographs in short bursts of about 3 weeks at a time. The first week is spent exploring then by weeks 2 and 3 she is ready to be productive. For the images in Sequester she returned to the Canary Islands several times. It is hard to say why she responds to some landscapes and not others but Spain and The Canaries appeal whereas Italy, for example does not. It seems to be related to the impact that man has had: she prefers a light, understated influence rather than obvious layers of history.

Original photograph by Awoiska van der Molen

Images alone don’t make a book – they have to work with the construction, layout, paper, printing and typography, and that’s what makes this book special. The designer, Hans Gremmen, has done a brilliant job on this within the constraints of commercial production. A master stroke was including every third section printed in white ink on black paper. My main criticism is for the way some images bleed across the gutter to the opposite page. This normally ruins the photograph’s carefully considered composition however van der Molen’s primary concern is not for conventional composition but for tones, light and shade, and mood. So in this instance I have to forgive what I normally consider bad practice in the interest of bleeding the image off the edge of the page, which is far more important here as it implies the image being a window into a bigger world.

Sequester is up there with the yummiest of photobooks but if photographs are inherently history then photobooks are even more so (Sequester took about 3 years to publish). Awoiska’s photography has evolved since these images were made and I look forward to following this artist’s journey through her personal landscapes in the future.

Matej Sitar’s page-turning video of Sequester is at https://vimeo.com/122460044

Awoiska van der Molen has images on show at The Photographers’ Gallery, London, as a nominee for 2017 Deutsche Börse Photography Foundation Prize until 11 June.

Christopher Thomas: New York Sleeps

newYorkSleeps

The cover of New York Sleeps by Christopher Thomas. 310 x 285 x 23mm. 160pp. Revised and expanded edition 2016. Prestel Verlag. My first impression is of a New York that I don’t recognise. Sure, I recognise the places, but where are the people? As Frank Sinatra sang: “New York, New York. I want to wake up in a city that never sleeps.”

Right from the start this is a disconcerting book. There is a consistency of vision and technique that makes it a single body of work even though the photographs span 8 years. The sequencing of the images is clear and evidential in its logic, and the print and paper quality is gorgeous. Including the Polaroid film edges in every image give them a ring of authenticity and leads us to make the assumption we are seeing the whole, unadulterated image, and yet the lack of people gives them an other-worldly feel. The more pages I turn the more I have a premonition that some terrible instantaneous event has happened to make everyone disappear while leaving the lights on and the fountains running with only the camera remaining as witness. It’s not so much New York Sleeping as New York Depopulated.

The more I read New York Sleeps the more I find a number of tensions running through it: these are black and white images of a colourful subject but is this done for artistic purpose or to give a documentary impression?; there is a studied static feel to the images, which shatters our preconception of New York as a dynamic city; finally the lack of people lends the images a dream-like surreal atmosphere that is heightened by the time exposure blur in many of the photos.

timesSquare

Times Square. Not a typical image from the book, but one of my favorites. It breaks the rules: the highlights are bleached out, the greys carry little information and the main centre of attention is a trash can. Could it be aliens landing? 

After several readings I began to see it increasingly as a work of fiction (or perhaps ‘dream’ is a more appropriate word, given the title) so I decided to treat the book like a storyboard for a movie. It provides the raw material for the readers’ imaginations to find their own answers, make up their own stories and resolve the tensions. To treat this book as a linear set of sequenced images (as good as they are) would be a waste; there are layers beneath this that are worth exploring and for this I would definitely recommend it.

Linda Lashford’s Songlines

Linda Lashford travels for a living, and photographs as she travels. Hers are not simple documentary records of places though: Linda photographs by theme and the images in this exhibition “Songlines” are grouped into Intimations of Landscape, The Splintered Coast, and Trappings of Light. Her images are on display at the Joe Cornish Gallery, North Yorkshire, UK until 23 September 2015.

As you might guess from the title, Intimations of Landscape are intimate semi-abstract photographs of aspects of landscape such as water, distressed paint or mist using a limited tonal range and colour palatte. Most show close-up details that imply much larger landscapes.

4 images by Linda Lashford

4 images from Linda Lashford’s Intimations of Landscape series.

Most of the 12 images in this series have little in the way of compositional elements to hold them together or guide the eye; the viewer is left to wander through each image and imagine what lies beyond the frame. These aren’t images of something but rather about something. That “something” is really for the viewer to decide based on the emotions and memories the images evoke. The images hover between a physical reality and a spiritual plane. As Minor White would have said: it’s not what is photographed that’s significant but what else is photographed.

3 images from The Splintered Coast series by Linda Lashford

3 images from The Splintered Coast series by Linda Lashford

The Splintered Coast contains 6 studies of the coastlines of Cornwall, South Wales and Brittany. Of all Linda’s images these are the most anchored in reality, the most literal of the themes. Unlike her other series, most of these contain horizons – perhaps it is this horizontal reference plane that implies the reality and makes it difficult to make the mental jump to any metaphoric plane. Instead I found myself comparing the similarities and differences of the coastlines depicted, which made it, at least for me, the least satisfying of the series.

The beautifully titled Trappings of Light series was taken in an abandoned cork factory in Portugal. “Oh no, not another abandoned-factory-stroke-urban-decay project” you may be thinking. Well no, it isn’t another me-too project about decay; Linda’s control of the photographic process and her eye for isolating and composing details out of visual noise show their strength in this series of 8 images. Form and texture interact with controlled abandon; there is light and shade but the highlights have detail and the shadows never block up. The light is without doubt trapped by these images and give pleasure and intrigue to the viewer that, like Intimations of Landscape, is rewarded by lingering with each photograph in a meditative frame of mind.

6 images from Songlines

Top row: 3 images from Trappings of Light. Bottom row: 3 images from Intimations of Landscape. Photographs by Linda Lashford

Songlines is a varied and satisfying set of images from a talented photographer. My only reservation isn’t about the images but about their display: the presentation and framing of each image is excellent but the hanging splits the series between walls and floors in the gallery, making them less coherent as bodies of work, and appears to associate images by superficial visual similarity rather than developing an underlying theme or narrative. This is understandable as the gallery is quite crowded with images from various photographers and tends towards a hard-working emporium of pictures rather than an art gallery, but it is a commercial enterprise and if that’s what’s needed to keep it running then I’m not going to knock it. Just control your expectations if you go there – and I recommend that you do!

What a photofest weekend! Photo London and Offprint London

The bank-holiday weekend of 21-25 May 2015 saw a raft of photographic happenings in London. The two big ones were Photo London and Offprint London. I attended both. Was it worth it? You bet!

Somerset House

Somerset House, home of Photo London 2015.

Photo London was based at Somerset House, had 70 galleries from 20 countries participating, along with 10 publishers and 3 special exhibitors. For me this isn’t a huge draw as I find the gallery scene rather rarefied and certainly out of my price bracket, but it’s a good opportunity to take the pulse of the photography collectors’ market and to see which names and styles are in vogue at the moment. It is not a free show; the entrance fee is pitched high enough to keep away the casual viewer and other oiks like me who can’t afford gallery prices. Nevertheless, I took the plunge and spent 5 hours immersed in some wonderful images.

Somerset House made an excellent venue, with its characterful small but linked rooms with lots of wall space making it ideal for the various galleries to display. Being split over 5 floors meant getting plenty of exercise on the stairs, though less than ideal for those with mobility difficulties. There were a few galleries selling historic images but the majority were promoting contemporary photographers. For me this balance was about right. The V&A also had a well-curated display of images from its collection called Beneath the Surface that continues until 24 August 2015.

Guns Love. 2014. Thomas Mailaender. cCopyright the artist.

Guns Love. 2014. Thomas Mailaender. Copyright the artist.

There were, of course, a huge number of excellent images (as well as some I wouldn’t give wall space to). If I have to pick one stand-out artist it is Thomas Mailaender‘s cyanotypes on the Roman Road stand. Although all the images used the cyanotype process the images were not process-driven but displayed a repertoire of playfully diverse ideas executed in an original but not gratuitous way.

Offprint London

Offprint London in the Tate Modern Turbine Hall

Offprint London was my main interest because of my long-running enthusiasm for the photobook. Several people I spoke to said that it was very similar to Offprint Paris in size and scope, though I noticed that some of the more established publishers had decided to exhibit at Photo London instead of Offprint. It was great to see indie publishers from across Europe and even a few from across The Pond! Not all exhibitors showed photobooks but these I just ignored.

There has been a huge increase in the number of photobooks produced recently compared with only 10 years ago, and the number of exhibitors and the size of the crowds at Offprint only serves to reinforce this. Unfortunately there has also been a huge increase in the number of poor photobooks, and Offprint had its fair share of those too. It’s great that photographers want to make photobooks and we all have to start somewhere but some of the work here shouldn’t be inflicted on a wider world. There is too much ego-driven publication and not enough art or craft value in a lot of photobooks today. Having got that off my chest I should also say that there are a lot of good quality books for sale at Offprint. Many are commercially published, which is fine, but it was the artisan self-publishers that took my eye. In particular I liked the work of Jane & Jeremy and Highchair Editions. Their art-and-craft blended approach and interesting design ideas were eye-catching and went beyond what would be expected from commercially-produced books, which is exactly the sort of photobook work I hoped to find at a show like this. So well done to you, and congratulations to Simon Baker and Tate Modern for holding Offprint London – I will definitely attend if it runs again next year!

Speaking of which, Photo London has already announced next year’s dates as 19-22 May 2016. Fingers crossed that Offprint will also repeat.

 

Jeff Wall at the Canada House Gallery, London

I came across this show in the Canadian High Commission by accident. I was walking through the north west corner of London’s Trafalgar Square, noticed that the Canada House Gallery had just opened and they’d chosen Canadian photographer Jeff Wall as the inaugural artist. The gallery is open, via a security check, Mondays to Saturdays 11.00 – 17.45 until 15th May 2015.

Jeff Wall's exhibition at the Canadian Embassy, London

Jeff Wall’s exhibition at the Canadian Embassy, London

It’s a one-room gallery and Jeff Wall’s works are decidedly in the over-sized category so you don’t get many to the metre – only five works in this case, plus some blurb. The photos seem too large for such a compact space though that’s the way Wall likes us to experience his images: to become almost part of the scene. Personally, and I would have preferred to see more, smaller works in what is quite a small space, but hey, it’s good to see another gallery opening for the visual arts and displaying photographs.

The images are an eclectic mix with no obvious theme or relationship other than a grab-shot quality to them and yet apparently they are very deliberate and considered. As Sara Knelman says in her leaflet accompanying the exhibition: ‘Wall works somewhere between the possibilities of capturing and constructing the world around us.’

If you are in central London it’s worth popping in to see the photos – and support the Canadians in their effort to open a new gallery space!

OnLandscape conference: craft versus art

OnLandscape, an on-line photography magazine, organised a weekend conference from 21-23 November 2014. I don’t think of myself as a landscape photographer but walking and photography have been synonymous for most of my life so I thought I’d attend. Here are my thoughts.

It's a fungus. No, it's a highly eroded landscape. No it's avast underground city. Yes, it's a metaphor! ©Malcolm Raggett

It’s a fungus! No, it’s a highly eroded landscape! No it’s a vast underground city! Yes, it’s a metaphor!! ©Malcolm Raggett

A glance at the OnLandscape Web site and the type of photographs that many of the contributing photographers take shows the narrow definition of “Landscape” to be expected at the conference. We’re talking “Natural Landscape” here: the urban or built environment is anathema to most of these photographers, as is any sort of environmental activism. The overwhelming aesthetic derives from that long thread stretching back from today’s Joe Cornish and Paul Gallagher (colour and black & white respectively) through Eliot Porter and Ansel Adams to the American Sublime and the English Landscape painters.

Most of the conference speakers (all male, I note) talked about the business, craft and practicalities of their photography, though David Ward considered cultural origins of colour, Rafael Rojas gave an excellent analysis of his approach to fine art photography and Jem Southam showed how he used the photographic process to satisfy his curiosity about contested spaces, narrative and metaphor. Southam’s talk was the closest we got to offering an alternative aesthetic in landscape photography and, judging from my conversations with other delegates afterwards, caused strong division of opinions amongst those who heard it.

Pushing a little harder at this division, there are those who think that a photograph should depict the subject in front of the camera in the most conventionally beautiful way possible. The recent winner of Take-a-View’s Landscape Photographer of the Year was held as an example of this, and two of his prints displayed at the conference did show a distinct tendency towards oil-painting qualities. I didn’t gather opinions from everyone at the conference but my perception is that the majority of those present fell into this “conventional beauty” camp. The concept that what a photograph is of and what a photograph is about can be entirely different hasn’t occurred to many viewers, or that a series of images can be greater than the sum of the parts was only acknowledged in a superficial way (such as a book being a collection of someone’s best photographs).

orange cone by yellow rape

Is it a road cone by a field of rape? Or is it a king leading his army into battle? Oh no, it’s another metaphor! ©Malcolm Raggett

The photograph has a powerful hold in many peoples’ minds as a reproduction of reality. Much has been written to dispel this myth but still it persists, perhaps because that is how most of us serve our photographic apprenticeship: recording photographically as an aid to memory. Yet one of the characteristics that is unique to our species (as far as we currently know) is our use of metaphor. It seems to be inate, starting with children seeing clouds that are shaped like animals through fictions that represent real life, to lines on paper that represent gods. Why then can’t aspiring photographers make the same associations in theirs and other photographs? Perhaps because the photographer never intended it? Or because the viewer never thought to push themselves outside their normal mental comfort zone?

As David Clapp pointed out in his talk, we strive for originality within familiarity but this diagram indicates we are not likely to find it there!

As David Clapp pointed out in his talk, we strive for originality within familiarity but this diagram indicates we are not likely to find it there!

I wonder if Jem Southam’s unuttered plea for delegates to think more deeply about their photography, to let go of the camera-as-craft and use it as a tool of enquiry, will have fallen on deaf ears. If a few people are encouraged along this line of thought then I think the conference will have been a success. It certainly helped me to see the different levels and diversity there is even within the narrowly defined scope of the conference. The conference was subtitled “A Meeting of Minds”; I do hope those minds have been encourages out of their comfort zones!

Processing C41 colour film in black & white chemistry

Summary

I have had promising results developing colour print film in standard black & white chemicals. Not only is it identical to processing black & white film but the fine grain and wide exposure latitude of C41 colour film is preserved in a black & white negative.

35mm colour print film can still be obtained in most city high streets, at least in the UK, and provides an available and low-cost alternative to regular b&w negatives for those willing to process and digitise their film.

The test

I had some out-of-date 35mm C41 colour print film (Kodak GC-400, a cheap, consumer-level ISO400 film, no longer available) and wondered what would happen if I processed it in my normal black & white developer, Rodinal (actually ADOX Adonal, which is identical to the original AGFA formula), so I fired off a roll of the colour film followed by a roll of black & white film at the same ISO400 setting, which I processed in the same chemistry for comparison. I used the same development time for the C41 film as the Massive Dev Chart recommends for Ilford XP2 (a C41 b&w negative film), so if you want to use a different developer go ahead!

The C41 film was given 18 minutes at 20C in Rodinal diluted 1+25, 1 minute stop bath, 5 minutes fix.

Ilford HP5+ was given 6 minutes at 20C in Rodinal diluted 1+25, 1 minute stop bath, 5 minutes fix.

The films were scanned using the same scanner and software (Epson V750 and Vuescan). Vuescan was set to auto-expose and give 2 passes for each frame, which I’ve found significantly reduces noise. The levels were adjusted in Photoshop to give a full tonal range on the histogram but no other manipulation. Samples for comparison are shown below.

The results

Inspection of the films under a loupe showed that the colour negative had low contrast and a long tonal scale together with fine grain; this is consistent with expectations for standard C41 processing. The black & white film showed normal tonal range (it was a dull day when both films were shot) but more distinctive grain. Here are the scans from the 35mm frames. The cropped images are an identically-sized area (10 x 7mm) of the frame:

C41 film full frame

Kodak GC-400 colour film at ISO400 processed in black & white chemistry, full frame

HP5 full frame

Ilford HP5+ at ISO400 processed in same black & white chemistry, full frame

C41 film cropped to show grain structure

C41 film cropped to show grain structure

HP5 cropped to show grain structure

HP5 cropped to show grain structure

Conclusion

C41 colour film can be processed in standard black & white chemicals to good effect. Although only one film type has been tested it is reasonable to assume that other C41 films will respond in the same way as they are formulated for standard machine processing.

The wide tonal range and fine grain characteristics associated with colour print film is retained when processed in black & white chemistry, though only a black & white negative is obtained on the orange film base of the C41 film. This is excellent for scanning but is likely to be problematic for anyone wanting to darkroom-print onto gelatine-silver paper.

If you need b&w film urgently or want to use cheap film to give black & white negatives for scanning, C41 colour films like Kodak Color Plus (ISO200), Agfa Vista 400 or any film from the Fuji Superia range (ISO200 to ISO1600) should be a lower-cost alternative to black & white film, especially if you can get short-dated film over the Internet (short-dated colour film should still be fine for black & white work as any colour shifts over time are irrelevant).

If you want gritty grain, well-tested development times for push and pull processing, or the ability to darkroom print from the negative, it would be best to stick with black & white negative film.

Nadav Kander and the aestheticisation of landscape

Nadav Kander’s latest landscape series “Dust” is exhibited at Flowers, Kingsland Road, London until 11 October 2014.

Nadav Kander, Dust.  Priozersk XIV (I was told she once held an oar) Kazakhstan 2011

Nadav Kander, Dust.
Priozersk XIV (I was told she once held an oar) Kazakhstan 2011

All photographers make an aesthetic decision when they choose a viewpoint and frame a photo, but aetheticisation goes beyond this to making “pleasingly beautiful” or “idealised”1 landscapes. It’s a sliding scale, with photographers like Daido Moriami and his snapshot approach at one end to the over-saturated pointless sunset at the other. In between there are professionals and amateurs emulating masters of the past, copying masters of the present or genuinely exploring and pushing forward photographic landscape aesthetic.

Artists making a living by landscape photography are restricted by their market; they tend to photograph in a way that will sell. This frequently results in the commodification of a mythic landscape using lowest-common-denominator aesthetics. So as a professional artist/photographer Nadav Kander has a difficult path to tread with “Dust”. In this work he chooses to document a “dirty” landscape – radioactive ruins on the border between Kazakhstan and Russia where atomic bombs and missiles were tested – in his characteristic quiet light reminiscent of the Dusseldorf School (Gursky, Ruff, Struth et. al.). Sometimes he chooses a camera position that only shows one side of a building, giving a static 2-dimensional impression but more commonly he shows us 2 sides, giving perspective, a little more dynamism and a greater sense of reality. He gets in there and shows us individual buildings or at least what’s left of them after an atomic blast or quake.  Thankfully there are no aerial photographs, which I find too distant and abstracting to get me involved. Kander’s landscapes are under-stated, controlled and consistent but not so consistent that they become boringly repetitive. They engage the viewer intellectually and emotionally without bludgeoning them with a message. Given the subject, I find his images err on the too-comfortable aesthetic side, but like all good art the work poses questions rather than provides answers so I can forgive his tendency to over-aestheticise. Having said that, he stays safely within his own photographic aesthetic to great effect: the viewer can almost hear the Geiger counter clicking away in the background. If you like Kander’s previous work you should be impressed with this new one. If you don’t know his work I highly recommend seeing Dust.

There’s an interesting interview with Nadav Kander on Vimeo and there’s a (slightly expensive) book. If you can’t get to the exhibition, do check out the book.

 


1 dictionary.com

Shy Cone

cone and cathedral spire

Hiding in the shadow of a larger cone – St Magnus Cathedral spire, Kirkwall. ©Malcolm Raggett

Nautical Cone

nautical cone

In the Orkneys a cone is never far from the sea. ©Malcolm Raggett

Candida Höfer: images of Villa Borghese

I have been a fan of Candida Höfer’s quiet, frozen-in-time style of photography for a long time, but I only know her work from books so I was really pleased when I heard she has a show on at Ben Brown Gallery in London. I made a bee-line for it on the first day.

Ben Brown Gallery

I was the only visitor in the Ben Brown Gallery – how lucky am I?! the uncluttered space suited the images of Villa Borghese, which contain both empty space and lots of detail.

Candida Höfer was a student of the Bechers at the Dusseldorf Kunstakademie  from 1976 to 1982, where she was contemporary with the likes of Andreas Gursky, Thomas Struth and Thomas Ruff. This school of photography encouraged students to find then stick to their own photographic path, though within the framework of the built environment and a series-approach to image-making. Höfer’s own path has taken her from 35mm to 6x6cm then to 5×4″ film, but virtually always in colour. She has specialised in architectural interiors but she achieves something more than a competent photographic record. She manages to use the underlying dicotomy of photography, that it both abstracts the scene as well as records the detail of what is in front of the camera, to great artistic effect. I have been a fan of her images for a long time but I only know them from books, so it was with cautious anticipation that I went to this exhibition of her large prints. I am always skeptical of photographers who exhibit large prints; it seems to be what their buyers demand but does the photograph really benefit aesthetically apart from the initial visual impact? Well in Höfer’s case, yes they do have value at the larger size, allowing us to see details that are less apparent in books.

The opening image of the show at the Ben Brown Gallery.

The first image of the show at the Ben Brown Gallery. The central statue is an androgynous figure with a rather surprised female top looking down at the erect penis of the bottom half. No doubt the cause of much amusement to visitors over the years. © Candida Höfer, Köln / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn

 

All the pictures on show use single-point perspective, giving the exhibition an immediate visual coherence and symmetry. But not quite: although the basic architecture and composition is often symmetrical, the decor and sculptures break the symmetry in a way reminiscent of Chinese art. I wondered whether Höfer was now adopting single-point as a personal style but a check for other Villa Borghese images on-line show that she also uses dual-point perspective where she feels it is appropriate. Her photographs do not include people and her style has been referred to as The Architecture of Absence, that’s to say that people are implied rather than present. Her photos here are no exception and conjure up a mental image of noisy, unruly crowds of visitors waiting impatiently outside while the photographer works quietly and unhurriedly inside on our behalf.

As a public art gallery, the Villa Borghese take precautions to protect the works. Candida Hofer cooses not to remove these features. © Candida Höfer, Köln / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn

As a public art gallery, the Villa Borghese take precautions to protect the works. Candida Höfer chooses not to remove these features. © Candida Höfer, Köln / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn

Examining the detail in these large prints becomes an act of meditation after a while.  You will soon notice that Höfer has chosen not to remove the guard chains around the sculptures even though it would have been feasible to do so. I think there may be two reasons for this.  It reminds us that this is now a public place, but it was not always so, having started life as the estate of a high-ranking cardinal in 1605 only becoming public in 1903, thus the chains link us through layers of history from the private opulent space intended not so much for living in as impressing other members of the Roman elite, through to today when this level of ornamentation seems excessively ostentatious and over-the-top.  The chains also point out that all things pass, but a legacy of culture from the past lives on, and the photograph asks the question of anyone collecting it “…and what legacy will you leave?”

I recommend exploring Candida Höfer’s photography if only by visiting this exhibition, which is on until 19 September 2014. The gallery is in the Oxford Street/Bond Street area at 12 Brook’s Mews, London W1K 4DG.

Andreas Gursky: Photography is Strictly Prohibited

There’s a truism that says First Impressions Count. My first impression of the Andreas Gursky exhibition of photographs at White Cube Bermondsey is of the two notices saying “Photography is strictly prohibited”. So prominent were these notices that I thought this was the title of the show rather than a command to visitors.

White Cube entrance

OK, I admit it, I Photoshopped “Photography is strictly prohibited” onto the wall, but you get the idea! It could also read “White Cube Welcomes Adverse Publicity”

So negative is this first thickly-ironic impression that my effort to overcome it was not entirely successful. Several large rooms were filled with Gursky’s ceiling-height photographs which impress with their size and detail, but I’m sorry to say that this isn’t enough: my lasting impression is that Gursky’s photography has gone off the boil; it no longer pushes boundaries – it has become comfortable. Perhaps this makes a better living in today’s art market, but I was underwhelmed by this exhibition. There were 4 images that did make me stop and look though. These were of superheroes in pensive mood: comic book characters showing their human side; telling us that having super powers isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. A great metaphor for this exhibition: my expectations of Gursky’s superhero status is rather misplaced, and this is his way of telling me. Nicely put Andreas!

Deutsche Börse short-list at The Photographers’ Gallery

Every time I think I’ve just about grasped contemporary photography along comes another Deutsche Börse short-list exhibition at the Photographers’ Gallery (TPG), London, to shatter my illusion!  This annual competition “…showcases new talents and highlights the best of international photography practice…” and “…aims to reward a contemporary photographer of any nationality, who has made the most significant contribution (exhibition or publication) to the medium of photography in Europe in the previous year”[1]. And it’s worth £30,000 to the winner, so we should take it seriously!

This year sees another disparate group of artist/photographers on the  short-list. Even though they have photography in common, comparing them is like comparing apples to pears. Even having the criterion “the most significant contribution (exhibition or publication) to the medium of photography in Europe” doesn’t leave me envying the judges their job! Another problem that we, the visitors to TPG exhibition, have is only seeing a fraction of each artist’s output. And how can we judge either their work or their contribution to the medium on this basis? Well I certainly can’t, so no judgement from me, only my opinions about the evidence as presented, m’ lud!

Alberto Garcia-Alix

Alberto Garcia-Alix exhibition

Still images and video from the Alberto Garcia-Alix exhibition

On show were self-portraits of the artist progressing from youth to middle-age. Life has not been kind to Garcia-Alix: we see someone who has been saved from self-destruction by an ability for self-examination and self-criticism. Whether the camera is a vital aid, a helpful crutch or simply a recording device is not clear to me from the pictures. I find that there is altogether too much in this exhibition that is specifically about Garcia-Alix and not insightful to life more broadly. He seems to be stuck in the habit of introspection. I can see that this might appeal to those who are embroiled in the pervasive cult of personality but it holds no appeal for me. @shoespace tweeted that “self-obsession doesn’t make for winning photography”[2]. It will be interesting to hear whether the judges agree. From other comments on social media, Garcia-Alix has polarised opinion more than any of the other artists on this short-list.

Jochen Lempert

Jochen Lempert's exhibition

part of Jochen Lempert’s exhibition

There is a curious combination of scientific and artistic vision in this work that I found confusing at first: it’s not exactly a tension between the two aspects but more a dichotomy between two identities. Eventually I decided to downgrade the scientific in favour of the aesthetic. The flow and juxtaposition of the images is poetic in its execution and these brought new insights for me. For example, I was struck by the pictures of geese flying in vee formation with the patterns they formed looking like the profile of a human face. This alone is not something that would win the prize but I cannot remember seeing an exhibition that blended images of the natural world in such an unusual, pleasing, poetic way before, and for that reason could be judged to have made a contribution to photography, so I think it should be a strong contender for this year’s prize.

Richard Mosse

2 of Richard Mosse's large false-colour images of Eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC)

2 of Richard Mosse’s large false-colour images of Eastern DRC

Mosse’s photos were originally shown as a collection titled The Enclave at the 2013 Venice Biennale Irish Pavilion. They were shot in the troubled Eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and used an obsolete infra-red colour film to give a false colour rendition, which in a sense blends an artistic interpretation with a journalistic approach. The images are a mixture of landscapes and environmental portraits of gun-toting soldiers. The pink/magenta foliage indicates a healthy flora and there is a lot of this in the images, but the men with guns show an environment infested with humans intent on killing each other: beauty and the beast! This juxtaposition has a dissonance made more extreme by the effective use of infra-red film. When I read about this in advance I was prepared for a visual gimmick but in reality I found it a surprisingly effective and innovative application of this old material, making Mosse a serious contender for the prize.

 Lorna Simpson

images by Lorna Simpson

Lorna Simpson’s 128 identically-sized images

Simpson has take a collection of images from the 1950’s showing women posing coyly for the camera, then photographed herself in similar costumes, lighting and poses. There are 128 identically-sized images only 5 of which show men, so immediately it is clear that there is a gender agenda as well as issues around culture and identity. This isn’t surprising since this is what Simpson is know for.

This exhibit speaks softly to the viewer, quietly asking which images are from the 1950s and which from 2009? It is hard to tell the difference, and this is one of Simpson’s points I think: fashions might change but underneath do we as humans change? Simpson is black so placing herself with black women of the 1950’s is a good pairing, but racial segregation in the USA was only made illegal in 1954 so the women in these photographs will have had to use black-only facilities. It takes a society many years to adjust to this type of cultural change and Simpson seems to be asking us to look inside and ask to what extent are we different now? Only the viewer can answer. Although Simpson is American, the questions she poses are universal and so puts her in the frame for this prize, especially when taken in the context of her wider body of work[3].


1. https://deutsche-boerse.com/dbg/dispatch/en/kir/dbg_nav/corporate_responsibility/33_Art_Collection/25_photography_prize viewed 30 April 2014

2. @shoespace on Twitter, 16 April 2014

3. http://lsimpsonstudio.com/index.html

Esther Teichmann: Fractal Scars, Salt Water and Tears

Esther Teichmann’s photographs – actually more of an installation using mainly photographs – are on display at Flowers Kingsland Road, London until 10 May 2014. The images are somewhat dark and the meaning obscure so displaying them in the upstairs space with its smaller area, lack of natural daylight and lower ceiling height is very appropriate.

 

Esther Teichmann photographs

Large manipulated overlapping images give a surreal quality to Esther Teichmann’s exhibition

Although the images are recognisably of places or people or shells, they are altered to give them an other-worldliness. They are then overlapped or juxtapositioned to produce a surreal effect as if we have been transported to a dream-world which Teichmann is exploring both physically but more importantly, emotionally and with a strong feminine theme. A central display of coral, wood and one of my all-time favourite books “The Shell: Five Hundred Million Years of Inspired Design” points out that we air-breathing creatures can still explore an underwater world in our imaginations, where physical limitations can be overcome.

the Esther Teichmann show at Flowers Kingsland Road, London

Part of the Esther Teichmann show at Flowers Kingsland Road, London

At first I found Teichmann’s show perplexing, as if it was in another dimension that I wasn’t part of, but as I looked around (several times) I found myself becoming more involved in her exploration. Once I mentally released myself into this different, parallel world I enjoyed it. Thank you, Esther, for being my guide even though you weren’t there!

Mona Kuhn: Acido Dorado

Mona Kuhn’s large-scale photographs occupy the downstairs gallery at Flowers Kingsland Road until 10 May 2014. This is a large, well-lit space that is appropriate to Kuhn’s light and airy images set in the vacation residence Acido Dorado (trans: Golden Acid), situated in the desert near Joshua Tree, California, USA.

semi-abstract images by Mona Kuhn

a wall of semi-abstract images by Mona Kuhn

There are two types of image: interestingly complex nude studies (for which she is best known) of Kuhn’s friend and model; and abstract images of the property itself. Although all the images have a beautiful light touch, it was the abstracts that particularly intrigued me. Some rippled slightly as if seen through a heat haze or refracted through water while others were barely recognisable, being abstracted beyond the time and space in which they were photographed giving some a passing resemblance to aerial photographs.

abstract images by Mona Kuhn

4 of Mona Kuhn’s abstract images

A terrific set of images that are well worth seeing!

Square (format) magazine

If, like me, you are a fan of the square format, check out this on-line quarterly magazine: http://www.squaremag.org/

The excellent Square magazine

The excellent Square magazine

Even if you are not a fan, check it out anyway – the standard of photography is very good!

potential replacement for Polaroid type 55 pos/neg film

Polaroid 545 holder

You will need one of these film holders to use the proposed new pos/neg instant film

If you own a 5×4″ camera and Polaroid 545 back you will be interested to hear about a project to develop a replacement for the much-lamented black & white positive+negative film, type 55.

Bob Crowley in the USA is working on this and has a Kickstarter project to raise some capital. Do consider helping him out: https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/bobcrowley/new55-film

countryside turns yellow

I’ve passed this lone cone many times but never stopped to photograph it until the countryside turned yellow with flowering rape. Then this cone suddenly acquired a context as if it was a king leading an army…

orange cone by yellow rape

This cone took on a new meaning when the rape flowered

Light and Land photo exhibition, Mall Gallery, London

65 photographers, most of whom have had some association with the Light & Land company are exhibiting a selection of their images – around 350 in total – at the Mall Galleries this week. The exhibitors range from full-time professionals to keen amateurs so, not surprisingly, the standard of photography varies too.

Most of the images are pictures of a place: photographically competent but lacking depth of meaning. Certainly good enough for a travel brochure, having that instant ‘ooh’ or ‘ah’ appeal but little beyond. They are what I call landscape porn, that is, meant to appeal to the dopamine junky in us all. I frequently wished I had a saturation slider on my glasses so that I could turn down the colour that shouted at me from the image.

Having got that out of my system, there were some images that grabbed my attention for the right reasons; that were of a place but were about something a bit deeper. Individual images that stood out as having a spiritual or temporal dimension were Kasia Novak’s ‘Taksang Monastery’, Norma Brandt’s ‘Salt’ and Pete Nixon’s ‘Swirling Leaves’ (I apologise for the reflections in my images here, there was no angle that would remove them).

'Taksang Monasery' by Kasia Nowak

‘Taksang Monasery’ by Kasia Nowak

 

'Salt' by Norma Brandt

‘Salt’ by Norma Brandt

'Swirling Leaves' by Pete Nixon. Cropped by Malcolm Raggett

‘Swirling Leaves’ by Pete Nixon. Cropped by Malcolm Raggett

A few photographers showed a themed body of images. Notable were Patrick Kaye and Kate Somervell for their studies in time, and Davina Clift’s use of blue.

Venice photos by Patrick Kaye

Untitled images by Patrick Kaye

Davina Clift's studies in blue: 'Fade to Grey'

Davina Clift’s studies in blue: ‘Fade to Grey’

Is the exhibition worth seeing? Yes, but there are a lot of images and it would be easy to get visual overload. Be prepared to be selective and, with a critical eye, you should find something that makes your visit worthwhile.

 

Boomoon. An artist working with big concepts

The Korean photographer Boomoon (b.1955) has a selection of images on show at Flowers Gallery, Cork Street, London at the moment (ends 5 April 2014). He is an artist who deals in big ideas: studies in time and/or space. Although these are big, conceptual topics he manages to interpret them within sets, each of which is narrowly defined and therefore manageable for photographer and viewer alike.

Boomoon's photographs at Flowers Gallery are reproduced at an impressively large size, though I didn't find this necessary in order to appreciate their artistic intent.

Boomoon’s photographs at Flowers Gallery are reproduced at an impressively large size, though I didn’t find this necessary in order to appreciate their artistic intent.

The series that particularly drew me to the gallery was Naksan  – a set of images charting the progress of a snowstorm at the coast of north east Korea.  It is a cinematic sequence in which the viewer’s imagination can supply the sounds and smells of the sea as well as the freezing temperature and wind-chill; it certainly made me want to reach for a warm coat! The pictures are of a snowstorm but they are about time as the storm’s fury increases, changes direction then abates.

Another discovery was the series of blue ice images, part of Boomoon’s Northscape work, beautifully presented in large acrylic-faced mounts.

This is a very impressive show and has left me wanting to see more of Boomoon’s work. Recommended, even if you aren’t into landscape photography.

 

Harry Callahan: always the teacher

There is a great show of Harry Callahan’s (1912-1999) work at London’s Tate Modern museum at the moment (until 31 May 2014). It is well worth going to see.

Cattails Against Sky

Cattails Against Sky. Harry Callahan, 1948

Callahan’s main role and income-generator was teaching photography.  This left him free of commercial pressures and able to explore with the eye of an artist. Nevertheless you cannot take the teacher out of the images: all of his photographs are lessons in how to see photographically, from the surreal (for example, shop mannequins) to the abstract (his shots of plant forms). The examples show us that the world as seen through Callahan’s camera/eye is an endlessly fascinating place.

Mannequin Legs

New York (Mannequin Legs). Harry Callahan, 1955

I overheard one teenager ask her friend “is that a time exposure?”, and the roving security guard was seen admiring the abstract images. So for different people the show functions at different levels, which is one hallmark of a successful exhibition. For me, the abiding memory is of the inquisitiveness that Callahan’s roving eye had, and this was generated internally not by some desire to copy prevailing trends. That’s a good lesson for us all!

Grasses, Wisconsin

Grasses, Wisconsin. Harry Callahan, 1958

There’s an interview with Harry Callahan on YouTube

Michael Wolf at Flowers

Although Michael Wolf is German he lives on Hong Kong, and he uses the city very effectively as inspiration for his photography. His project Architecture of Density shows frontal pictures of Hong Kong’s high-rise apartment buildings without sky or horizon and more-or-less straight on.  This leads to a lack of perspective giving a flattened, semi-abstract quality.

Architecture of Density #39

Architecture of Density #39. © Michael Wolf

A few images from this extensive project are on show at Flowers Gallery, Cork Street, London until 22 February 2014 and are well worth seeing as huge, wall-sized enlargements rather than in Michael’s book.  So often we see large images which don’t benefit from being large (except that they command higher prices) but in this case Architecture of Density really does gain artistic as well as physical impact. I recommend seeing them in their 2-metre-long-edge form if you get the chance.

At first glance they could be computer-generated repetitions but the human presence revealed in the detail shows they are not. The semi-abstract quality detaches the viewer from the reality of living in these massive blocks, each of which must contain several thousand people even though we don’t see them in person.

Architecture of Density #75. © Michael Wolf

Architecture of Density #75. © Michael Wolf

It would be easy to conclude that these prison-like buildings not only de-personalise but also de-humanise the occupants but looking deeper we see order not chaos, tiny marks of humanity not criminality, faded peeling paint but not mindless graffiti. Perhaps it’s not such a bad place to live after-all.

Hong Kong Trilogy by Michael Wolf

the book Hong Kong Trilogy by Michael Wolf

Also on sale at the gallery was Michael’s book Hong Kong Trilogy. This is my kind of book: quirky, beautifully seen images of the small and unregarded cameos that make the character of a place. Again, without picturing people but their presence is everywhere. So far this is my top book of 2014 and it’s going to be hard to beat!

Lone Cone: 15 Minutes of Fame

Even cones deserve their 15 Minutes of Fame! © Malcolm Raggett

Even cones deserve their 15 Minutes of Fame! © Malcolm Raggett

David Lynch at The Photographers’ Gallery

A selection of David Lynch’s black & white photographs is currently on show at the Photographers’ Gallery, London (until 30 March 2014). The pictures are moody, quizzical and elegiac. Not surprisingly, the film-maker in Lynch cannot resist using his still images to tell us a story.

The view from the top gallery distracts some visitors from the exhibition temporarily.

The view from the top gallery distracts some visitors from the exhibition temporarily.

As you can see from the above picture, all the images in this show are the same in size, format and framing.  Some images are grouped together in double rows but other than that, all images have similar weight; even images with strong vertical elements that would apparently cry out to be framed vertically are doggedly landscape format.  Although the viewer sees the images one at a time, it is important to consider the exhibition as a whole (like a film) as it takes us on a journey from the outside of a grimy but active factory, with chimneys belching smoke or steam, around the corner to abandonment, then through a door to the decaying inside of the factory where time has virtually ground to a halt, and finally out to a more modern, active, but still industrial, world again where the clock is spinning even faster than before.  Humans are not shown but their presence is felt everywhere from the brickwork to the broken glass, from the wires to the wharves. The photographs were taken at different times and several locations so the story is made by the interweaving and sequencing of time and space.

David Lynch photographs

The pictures take us on a journey from the outside (on the left) through a door (centre) to the inside (right).

Although a few images use perspective to show depth and distance, most have a 2-dimensional, semi-abstract quality to them. Broken or asymmetric frames occur frequently as do strong lines, whether they are power lines, phone lines, windows, fences, barbed wire, poles or pipes. These all form strong graphical elements but they are often not quite horizontal or vertical, which encourages the viewer to tilt their head in a rather quizzical fashion in response to the tilt that Lynch has given the camera. Combine this with detail-less shadows and/or highlights, occasional camera shake or out-of-focus detail and the viewer may consider the images to be rather casual snapshots, but when put together in this show they give an impression that Lynch is quietly passionate about the subject; that he gets beneath its surface and sees that it had and still has value. He sees it warts an’ all but he doesn’t judge it, rather, he loves it.

A visit to the Photographers’ Gallery to see this and the other exhibitions is highly recommended. I’m sorry to say that TPG has now introduced a charge for entry. This is a shame and I’m sure they did this with reluctance, but it’s preferable to not having this excellent organisation. There are times when entry is free, and members get in free at any time, so do consider joining and supporting their work. 

Pothole cone

It’s that time of year when even retired cones get pressed back into service

Pothole cone

Pothole cone